In the desert of Atacama, a giant hand, 11 meters tall, reaches out from the sand. Its presence, along the Pan-American Highway in a remote section of Chile, seems inexplicable. The area is a wilderness of salt flats, so bone-dry that NASA have used it as a test location for Mars expeditions. It is a place that appears largely devoid of life, bar the strange concrete hand of some submerged being, grasping towards the light.
The Mano del Desierto statue was created by the artist Mario Irarrázabal. Its meaning is intriguingly ambiguous. If it was dedicated to an individual or an event, it would still attract attention but its power is amplified by its mysterious quality. A traveller chancing upon it can project or interpret all manner of things. The awe or the melancholy they might find in viewing it is precisely down to the fact it is an unresolved puzzle.
That same sense of unresolved wonder kept bringing me back to Sable. When I first saw the then-unnamed project from Shedworks’ Gregorios Kythreotis in 2017, during an event at London’s V&A Museum where we discussed game environments as we played them, it appeared meditative, patient, and artful. It was unafraid to pause in contemplation. There was space to breath within it and yet it had none of the tedium associated with the more lethargic walking simulators. Instead, it seemed to glide in a smooth fluid way, more akin to classic racing games like Wipeout or the speeders of Star Wars. It was exploration with velocity and without overblown pyrotechnics. Since then, Kythreotis has unveiled the game to the world as Sable, with a release date set for later this year.
Above all, Sable has a curious quality of seeming utterly alien yet strangely familiar. This was an alien world I had not seen before and yet there were recognizable fragments. There was the clean line fantasia-style of the French comic book artist Moebius, the light trail motion of Akira, the real-life stone ruins of Khmer, Egyptian, and Mesoamerican civilisations, and the eerie immersive environments of games from Another World to Journey.
Crucial to its appeal is Sable’s ability to raise as-yet unanswered questions. What are the stories behind the spaceship-wrecks and the colossal skeletons in the desert? Are the streaks of light across the sky shooting stars or something darker? What was the origin of the stone relics and ruins, reminiscent of the Mano del Desierto, left behind by earlier cultures? These touches give the game a multi-layered and far-reaching feel, as if there were vast deep territories not just of space but also time, just out of reach and out of sight. While we’ve grown used to colossal breadth, in terms of open world games, the insinuation of depth, through the creation of half-buried histories, is a very different skill.
“There's definitely a moment when you see, say, a mysterious silhouette on the distant horizon, where it could be anything and you find your curiosity piqued,” says Kythreotis. “This is the moment that we've tried to gear the design of the game around as much as possible. Beyond that it's about hopefully making the destination worth the journey and not a disappointment.”
For Kythereotis, the feeling of discovery that has driven humanity to travel for thousands of years is the core of Sable. “This sense of discovery doesn’t just apply to places either, it's something we think applies to characters and culture too. Games, in particular, are so much about learning, whether it is learning pure mechanical systems, learning how to solve a puzzle or what a particular narrative is.”
The vast desert setting of Sable offered atmosphere, a sense of the infinite, and, in a practical sense, the ability to turn limitations into advantages. “Having such a small team meant we needed a space that we could populate in a believable way but still let us play with scale and evoke a sense of loneliness,” Kythreotis notes, “so having a lot of sparse areas wouldn't feel dissonant or take someone out of the experience. The thought of driving around on a hoverbike and exploring monuments that could be vast distances away felt really exciting.
This sense of discovery has, of course, long been paramount in gaming, and in art more broadly. You could make the case that many 3D exploration games are descendants of Caspar David Friedrich’s Romantic painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) in terms of perspective and seeking out the unknown. There is poetry in the dark places. Perhaps poetry is the dark places, as the Romantic poet Keats defined it in his concept of ‘Negative Capability,’ “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
The most effective games of this kind are those which combine the allure or dread of the unknown with traces of iconography from the real past. This anchors what might otherwise seem too fanciful, while tapping into deep-seated cultural memories. The ruins of the isometric puzzle and exploration game Pavilion resonate because they are assembled from centuries-old architectural styles, via the dark symbolist prism of Arnold Böcklin paintings such as his Isle of the Dead series (1880-1886). Likewise, games as disparate as Dark Souls and Monument Valley have absorbed and transformed existing architecture from gothic cathedrals in Milan to stepwells in Jaipur.
"We all live in a culture that is simultaneously futuristic and ancient." - Meg Jayanth
Even ruins are subject to the changes of time and context. History is rarely inert but rather a series of shifting layers. With sites like Angkor Wat, in the Cambodian jungle, the form and function of the place was transformed and repurposed over generations and centuries. In medieval times, the Colosseum in Rome was even used as a stone quarry for new buildings. The past, in other words, is still with us and still evolving.
“We all live in a culture that is simultaneously futuristic and ancient,” Meg Jayanth, writer on Sable, points out. Having worked on 80 Days and Sunless Sea, she has experience creating worlds as multi-layered as the one around us. “I mean, think about London: it's both the London Eye and it's Westminster Abbey. I live in East London for most of the year, and it's this weirdly modern landscape that only makes sense when we think about how it was bombed during the Blitz in World War II and rebuilt.”
Jayanth hopes to bring this style of layered history to Sable. “At the moment, we're looking at something as ancient as time as a desert encampment and we're turning it over and remaking it from something familiar into something that makes sense for Sable's specific place and time. It's a back and forth, with futuristic norms and technology influencing architecture and environment and all of that feeding back into narrative thinking.”
But history isn’t only a layering of new, it’s also the muddying—even the erasure—of some pasts and perspectives. “We've thought a lot about how meaning becomes lost or misinterpreted over time; how our understanding of history is warped over time, how symbols or icons that meant something positive at one point in history could now have a more negative connotation for example.”
What are these negative connotations? One might be found in the history of discovery itself. The problem with setting out to explore the unknown is that very often it is not unknown at all. There are people already there. The so-called Age of Discovery, beginning in 1418 when European explorers set off for Africa, gave rise to the Age of Imperialism. There were plenty of wonders and terrors to be found and committed. The art of the time reflects the mix of discovery and projection. Enigma often meant erasure or distortion of how things actually were for the peoples they encountered.
The orientalist paintings of Jean-Léon Gérôme are stunning in their vivid almost-photographic quality yet they embody all manner of exotic fantasies surrounding harems and calls to prayer. The nocturnal symbolist visions of František Kupka might appear the stuff of nightmares but they were inspired by real-life ruins; Resistance – Black Idol (1903) is based on the Egyptian Colossi of Memnon, while his The Way of Silence (from the same year) was born from the Avenue of Sphinxes at Luxor. They reflect the combination of attraction and revulsion, desire and fear, curiosity and ignorance, the Western powers felt towards the rest of the world. When the colonial administration in French Indochina sought recruits, they did so with posters promising all the treasures of "the Orient," decorated with semi-imaginary depictions of real-life vernacular architecture.
While series like Tomb Raider and Uncharted have turned the exploration and desecration of ancient civilizations into, varying degrees of, entertainment, Sable takes a different path. The aim here is not to impose or appropriate but to delve into unfamiliar worlds and learn their meanings, “What is the history behind these broken monuments scattered about the land?” as the developers put it. More than this, we’re crucially invited to listen to the inhabitants and understand their lives, “How did the nomadic clans come here, and what made them stay? What's the greater importance that Sable [the character] must come to understand as part of this rite of passage?”
“I think there are two processes at work,” Jaynath notes in terms of the game’s development, “First, the kind of cultural and sociological world-building that imbues the environment with dramatic possibility. This is the work we are doing at the moment. We're explaining the world to ourselves, and making sure there is a real sense of integrity and continuity in the way Sable's world is structured and functions.”
But the team also needs to build a game, Jayanth adds, one filled of individual moments, encounters, and actions. “Remember, this is Sable's world. She and her people have found a way to make sense of it, to navigate it, but that doesn't mean they understand it entirely. But it should never contradict itself, or feel nonsensical. That's the goal—to make sure there's enough depth for the sort of player that goes looking for it, but enough richness for players who simply want to experience the world.”
An important tool in creating a world of unfolding layers is to take multiple influences and synthesize elements of them; creating something new but resonant. Sable reaches far and wide in terms of influences and frequently outside of games (architecturally alone, the Metabolists, Carlo Scarpa and John Soane arise in conversation), though always returning to the desert environment as Kythreotis points out.
“As the project has progressed, we've been researching and responding to different ways of living in different types of desert spaces, whether they be more nomadic ideas of living such as the Bedouin black tents or more stationary ideas of desert dwelling such as Arcosanti or Dakhla Oasis. It's always fascinating to learn about how different peoples and cultures respond to similar environments, especially when conditions are so extreme, and how they respond either differently or similarly.”
The collage approach, mixing the speculative and the real, is one that has been similarly utilized by those who’ve inspired Sable. The worlds depicted in Moebius’ comic art, for example, are startlingly original but they also seem credible and inhabitable because we can see echoes of actual places within them—the Bridge of Sighs, the stone faces of Bayon, the Niagara Falls, the temples of the Bagan plains, Monument Valley in Arizona and Utah, and so on. The enchanting animations of Studio Ghibli are likewise meticulously researched and based on actual settings—the Japanese bathhouses in Spirited Away, the Alsatian housing in Howl’s Moving Castle and the forests of Yakushima island in Princess Mononoke. By absorbing real-life touchstones, flights of fancy are given weight and impact.
"Making games is basically a lot like doing magic tricks…" -Gregorios Kythreotis
Perhaps the most important quality that Sable’s developers share with Moebius and Studio Ghibli is that they trust their audience’s imaginations and place great importance on the power of suggestion. They take the maxim of ‘Show, don’t tell,’ beloved of creative writing teachers, and strip it down to ‘Hint, don’t tell.’
This can be seen in two films the aforementioned Moebius is associated with—Alien, which he worked on, and Blade Runner, which he partly inspired with his comic The Long Tomorrow. Both films work partly because so much goes unexplained but hinted at. They have unfathomable depths we cannot help but stare into. Take Roy Batty’s ‘Tears in rain’ speech in Blade Runner. It has such force because we are not shown what it alludes to. To actually see Tannhäuser Gate, a fantastical place yet one with deep folkloric echoes in its name, would inevitably disappoint.
The critical failure of a film like Prometheus was partially because it attempted to answer the questions Alien raised (who was the ‘space jockey’? for instance) while the artistic success of Blade Runner 2049 came down to its expansion of the enigmatic quality of the original. Often filling in the gaps comes with the best intentions, not least to give fans what they want, which is a very different thing from what they need. It was the desire and inability to know, the unsatiated appetite, that made these stories seem tantalizing in the first place.
The key seems to be to trust the audience, and their infinite imagination, enough not to explain away the magic and mystery. It’s an approach Sable’s developer Kythreotis is familiar with.
“I think magic is the right word to use,” he says. “Making games is basically a lot like doing magic tricks, regardless of what part of the game we are discussing. Artists are always trying to keep people fully immersed in their worlds and stories, and part of this is pulling the wool over the players’ eyes a little to hide the ‘how?’ of a trick.”
It is crucial, then, for developers building mysterious, unfolding environments to keep a clear sense of focus, while simultaneously disguising it. The audience’s minds and characters can wander but within certain parameters and purposes established, often invisibly.
“It’s important for things to have a system or a logic,” suggests Kythreotis, “because your world can feel arbitrary if you aren’t careful and as soon as that happens things start to lose meaning. But it’s also important to have fun with it, and even if something doesn’t 100% tie together logically, there is some sort of personal reasoning behind the decisions you make as a designer.”
A sense of mystery has enduring appeal, as Sable shows, provided we are not lost in it. Carefully-placed questions stay with us far longer than definitive answers, but it takes an awful lot of work to create the unknown, to construct the hidden foundations beneath the sands that will keep that curious hand in the desert puzzling passers-by for decades to come. And, Kythereotis importantly notes, to keep some answers hidden.
“When you lose curiosity, or you feel like you’ve seen it all and there is nothing to learn anymore, that’s when I usually find myself putting down a game.”
The demands of cultish completists can disrupt this approach but so too can the desire to appeal to as many people as possible. Every game needs to be a commercial success; a pressure the vast majority of creative endeavors face. In his final televised interview, the dramatist Dennis Potter warned against “the pressure upon creators, whether they are writers, directors, designers, actors, producers, whatever […] to maximize your audience at any given point, which is the very antithesis of discovering something you didn’t know.”